Afghanistan remains a key military and diplomatic challenge for the United States, with far-reaching strategic and economic implications. While achieving stability in war-torn Afghanistan is a prerequisite for regional peace, fixing matters there has become hostage to innumerable domestic contradictions as well as deep-rooted strategic mistrust among key regional stakeholders. If the Trump administration has been pressing Pakistan for the desired level of cooperation against terror groups, China’s diplomatic efforts to ease pressure has only helped Islamabad to postpone a much-needed paradigm shift in its suicidal Afghan policy. The shifting dynamic has threatened the U.S.-backed Afghan government’s tenuous hold, while undermining the peace prospects.
Created to steer the Afghan peace process, the Afghan High Peace Council (HPC) has not been able to achieve any breakthrough. The HPC is using its successful peace talks with Hizb-e-Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar as a model for the Taliban to end its armed insurgency and enter into negotiations with the Kabul regime. But the Taliban is an altogether different phenomenon.
In early December, when the HPC offered to facilitate the Taliban to open an office in Kabul or in any country for initiating a peace dialogue, the Taliban immediately rejected the offer saying that “more than half of Afghanistan is under our control and the entire Afghanistan is our office.” A senior HPC official said in a conciliatory tone that Afghan government is ready for talks under whatever mechanism—“tribal jirgas, welfare organizations, or mediation of jihadi figures and religious scholars”—the Taliban desired. The HPC also convened a conference of about 700 religious scholars from all 34 provinces of Afghanistan in Kabul in the last week of December to prepare ground for ‘Afghan-led’ peace talks. A joint declaration issued at the end of the conference appealed to Taliban to “remove all those elements from their ranks and files that have ties with international terrorism,” while asking the Afghan government to be flexible with the peace process. The HPC chief, Mohammad Karim Khalili, has not ruled out the existence of other channels of communication with the Taliban.
A large number of Afghan parliamentarians are pressuring the Ghani government to convene a Loya Jirga, the traditional council of the Afghan people. Former President Hamid Karzai, who is leading this campaign, argues that Ghani-led national unity government is not functioning as per constitutional provisions and therefore the Loya Jirga is the best forum “to bring safety and a better life to the Afghan people.” President Ghani will however try to avoid convening the Loya Jirga, keeping in view the growing opposition to his government coupled with the failure of his administration to meet popular expectations. This perception is also gaining ground that Ghani regime is fragmented, corrupt, inefficient and utterly incapable of bringing peace to the nation. In fact, the efforts of HPC have been severely hampered because of governance failures at multiple fronts.
In the backdrop of such weak internal peace overtures in Afghanistan, the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG)—comprising Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and the U.S.—and designed to discuss prospects for peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, should be activated to play a more significant role. Unfortunately, the QCG has almost become non-functional after Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour was killed in a drone strike in May 2016. Though, efforts have been made to revive it. In October 2017, the most recent meeting of the QCG in Muscat, Oman took place. But this sixth QCG meeting was a ‘symbolic gathering’ as the absence of Afghan Taliban reduced the already slim chances of any breakthrough and no official statement was issued after the meeting.
Despite the unreliable and unpredictable nature of the QCG as a forum, it is admittedly a vital platform regarding the resolution of the Afghan conflict. However, its success or failure largely depends on the Afghan-Pakistani relationship as well as Islamabad’s willingness to demonstrate to the U.S. a sincere commitment to tackling terror groups that conduct attacks inside Afghanistan. Vice President Mike Pence, in a surprise visit to Afghanistan’s Bagram Airfield on December 22, openly warned Pakistan that it could no longer escape the writing on the wall. And just before his visit, the Pentagon informed Congress that it would take “unilateral steps” in areas of divergence with Pakistan. In his first tweet of 2018, Trump again launched a scathing attack on Pakistan, claiming that “United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than $33 billion in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies and deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools.”
China-led trilateral talks
Beijing has made ambitious diplomatic moves by initiating a trilateral forum with Kabul and Islamabad to enhance peace prospects in Afghanistan. Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, joined his Afghan and Pakistani counterparts in Beijing on December 26 to work together on mutual trust, reconciliation efforts and security cooperation. Most importantly, there was an interesting suggestion that China and Pakistan would like to extend the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is an essential component of Beijing-led Belt and Road Forum, to Afghanistan.
However, the ground reality of Afghan-Pakistani ties remains rather complicated. The China-led efforts would remain ineffectual unless the economic and political interests of Afghanistan and Pakistan converge. Afghanistan is diversifying its trade and economic relations to reduce dependence on Pakistan; opening of the Chabahar port and air corridor with India being the clear manifestations of this changing orientation. On the other hand, China is desperate to bring Afghanistan back to connect with Pakistan through attractive connectivity initiatives of CPEC. Hence, due to intractable incompatibilities between Kabul and Islamabad, the China-Afghanistan-Pakistan trilateral dialogue has failed to raise many eyebrows.
Both Washington and Beijing believe that the road to peace in Afghanistan goes through Rawalpindi in terms of its capacity to put pressure on the Afghan Taliban for joining the peace process and to strengthen the Afghan economy through increased connectivity. But their visions differ vastly. Chinese mediation alone is not likely to reduce the existing trust deficit between Kabul and Islamabad.